“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

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“ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” (2007) Review

Many people would be surprised to learn that not many of Agatha Christie’s novels featured another one of her famous literary sleuths, Miss Jane Marple. The latter served as the lead in at least twelve novels, in compare to the thirty-three novels that starred her other famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It is because of this limited number of novels that the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” featured adaptations of Christie novels in which she appeared in the television films, but not in the novels. One of them is “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE”.

Based upon Christie’s 1958 novel, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” opened with the murder of the Argyle family’s controlling matriarch, Rachel Argyle. Mrs. Argyle was a wealthy heiress who had adapted several children, due to her inability to have her own. She also proved to be a controlling – almost tyrannical – mother who managed to alienate her adoptive children and husband. It did not take the police very long to focus upon one suspect – the family’s black sheep, Jack “Jacko” Argyle. Apparently, the latter quarreled with the victim over money. Jacko claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger, when Rachel was murdered. But said stranger never stepped up to give him an alibi and Jacko was hanged for the crime. Two years later found the Argyle family celebrating the family’s patriarch Leo Argyle to his secretary, Gwenda Vaughn. The latter had invited her former employer, Jane Marple, to attend the wedding. A day or two before wedding, a stranger named Dr. Arthur Calgary appeared at the family estate, claiming to be the stranger who had given Jacko a lift on the night of Rachel’s murder. Due to Dr. Calgary’s confession, the Argyle family and Gwenda found themselves under suspicion for murder.

As I have stated in other movie reviews, I never had a problem with changes in adaptations of novels and/or plays, as long as these changes worked. “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” featured a few changes. The biggest change featured in the inclusion of Jane Marple as the mystery’s main investigator. Arthur Calgary served in that role in the novel. The television film also featured the addition of a character that was not in the novel – Jacko’s fraternal twin Bobby Argyle. Another major change featured the film’s second murder victim. Screenwriter Stewart Harcourt switched the identity of the story’s second victim. And how did these changes work?

I have to be frank. The addition of Bobby Argyle to the story did not seemed to have much of an impact upon me. The character became the executor of his adopted mother’s will, which placed him in charge of her money and his siblings’ trust funds. The problem I had with his story arc is that audiences were left in the dark on whether he had lost their money when he committed fraud . . . or he simply lost his own money. As I had previously stated, Harcourt and director Moira Armstrong had switched the identity of the story’s second victim. I will not reveal the identities of both the old and new identities. But I must admit that the second victim’s death – at least in this television movie – added a rather sad and poignant touch to this adaptation. The last major change featured Jane Marple as the story’s major investigator. Arthur Calgary, the man who could have provided Jacko Argyle an alibi, was the main investigator in Christie’s novel. In this film, he was more or less regulated to the role of a secondary character. Ironically, this change did not diminish his role, for Calgary more or less served as Miss Marple’s eyes, ears and feet; while remained at the Argyle estate. And this meant several scenes that featured Calgary engaging in a good deal of investigations on Miss Marple’s behalf.

Despite these changes, “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE” more or less retained the main narrative Christie’s story. More importantly, I thought both Harcourt’s screenplay and Armstrong’s direction did an excellent job in maintaining the story’s angst, poignancy and more importantly, irony. Thanks to the director and screenwriter, “ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE” conveyed how Rachel Argyle’s presence managed to cast a shadow upon her family. And how her absence lifted that shadow, until Dr. Calgary’s revelation about Jacko’s innocence. I was also impressed at how the television movie did an effective, yet subtle job in conveying the bigotry faced by the family’s only person of color – Christina “Tina” Argyle.

While watching “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”, it occurred to me that Christie’s tale would not have worked if it had not been for the cast’s exceptional performances. All of them, I believe, really knocked it out of the ballpark. Mind you, there were solid performances from supporting cast members like Reece Shearsmith, Andrea Lowe, Camille Coduri, Pippa Haywood, and James Hurran. But I must confess that I was really impressed by those who portrayed members of the Argyle household. Burn Gorman radiated a mixture of charm and slime as the doomed Jacko Argyle. Richard Armitage was equally memorable as the avaricious and bitter ex-R.A.F. pilot who had married into the Argyle family, Philip Durrant. Singer Lisa Stansfield gave a subtle performance as Philip’s emotional, yet reserved wife Mary Argyle Durant, blinded by intense love for her husband. I enjoyed Bryan Dick’s portrayal of the volatile Micky Argyle, but there were moments when he threatened to be over-the-top. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, on the other hand, gave a performance that matched Stansfield’s subtlety as the blunt Tina Argyle, who hid her resentment of the racism she faced behind a sardonic mask. Stephanie Leonidas gave an effectively tense performance as the family’s youngest member, Hester Argyle, struggling to face her past involvement with brother-in-law Philip. And the always reliable Tom Riley did an excellent job with his portrayal of morally questionable Bobby Argyle.

But the performances that really impressed me came from the cast’s more veteran performers. Geraldine McEwan was marvelous as always in conveying the quiet intelligence of Miss Jane Marple. Despite being on the screen for only a few minutes, Jane Seymour really knocked it out of the park and domineering and sharp-tongued Rachel Argyle. She made it easy to see how the character managed to cast a shadow over the Argyle family. Julian Rhind-Tutt struck me as both entertaining and effective as the scholarly Dr. Arthur Calgary, who gave Jacko Argyle his alibi two years too late. What I found impressive about Rhind-Tutt’s performance is that he managed to convey his character’s intelligence and strength behind the nebbish personality. Alison Steadman’s portrayal of the Argyle’s judgmental housekeeper struck me as both subtle and frightening – especially in her stubborn belief that Gwenda Vaughn was Rachel’s killer. Denis Lawson has my vote for the best performance in “ORDEAL OF INNOCENCE”. There . . . I said it. And I stand by this. Lawson did a brilliant job in conveying the weak and suggestible personality of Leo Argyle. There were moments when I could not decide whether I liked him or despised him. It is not every day one comes across a fictional character brimming with quiet charm and unreliability.

It has been years since I saw the 1984 television adaptation of Christie’s 1958 novel. So, I have no memories of it. And I have seen the recent 2018 television adaptation. But I must be honest. I really enjoyed this 2007 adaptation. Yes, it has a few flaws. But I really believe that it did a superb job in conveying the poignant and ironic aspects of the novel. And I have director Moira Armstrong, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and a superb cast led by Geraldine McEwan to thank.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1700s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1700s:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1700s

 

1. “John Adams” (2008) – Emmy winners Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams in this award winning HBO miniseries about the second U.S. President from his years as a Boston lawyer to his death. Tom Hooper directed.

 

 

2. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (2014-2017) – Jamie Bell starred in this television series that is an adaptation of Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. The series was created by Craig Silverstein.

 

 

3. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this television adaptation of Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s novels about a British aristocrat who adopts a secret identity to save French aristocrats from the guillotine during France’s Reign of Terror. Directed by Clive Donner, Ian McKellen co-starred.

 

 

4. “The History of Tom Jones – A Foundling” (1997) – Max Beesley and Samantha Morton starred in this adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel about the misadventures of an illegitimate young man in the mid-1700s, who had been raised by a landowner. Metin Hüseyin directed.

 

 

5. “The Book of Negroes” (2015) – Aunjanue Ellis starred in this television adaptation of Laurence Hill’s novel about the experiences of an African woman before, during and after the American Revolution; after she was kidnapped into slavery. Clement Virgo directed.

 

 

6. “Black Sails” (2014-2017) – Toby Stephens starred in this television series, which was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”. The series was created by Jonathan E. Steinberg
and Robert Levine.

 

 

7. “Garrow’s Law” (2009-2011) – Tony Marchant created this period legal drama and fictionalized account of the 18th-century lawyer William Garrow. Andrew Buchan, Alun Armstrong and Lyndsey Marshal starred.

 

 

8. “Poldark” (1975/1977) – Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn created this series, an adaptation of the first seven novels in Winston Graham’s Poldark literary series. Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees starred.

 

 

9. “Outlander” (2014-present) – Ronald Moore developed this series, which is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s historical time travel literary series. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan starred.

 

 

10. “Poldark” (2015-2019) – Debbie Horsfield created this series, an adaptation of the first seven novels in Winston Graham’s Poldark literary series. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson stars.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

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THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

The year 1963 saw the release of Tony Richardson’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel,“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. Another thirty-four years passed before another adaptation of the novel appeared on the scene. It turned out to be the BBC’s five-episode miniseries that aired in 1997. 

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a comic tale about the life and adventures of an English foundling, who is discovered in the household of a warm-hearted landowner in Somerset named Squire Allworthy. The latter adopts the child and Tom Jones grows up to be a lusty, yet kindly youth; who falls in love with one Sophia Western, the only child of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom is raised with the squire’s nephew, a falsely pious and manipulative young man named Mr. Blifil. Because the latter is Allworthy’s heir, Sophia’s father wishes her to marry Mr. Blifil, so that the Allworthy and Western estates can be joined as one. Unfortunately for Squire Western and Mr. Blifil, Sophia is in love with Tom. And unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tom is discredited by Mr. Blifil and his allies before being cast away by Squire Allworthy. In defiance of Squire Western’s wishes for her to marry Mr. Blifil, Sophia (accompanied by her maid, Honour) runs away from Somerset. Both Tom and Sophia encounter many adventures on the road to and in London, before they are finally reconciled.

Actually, there is a lot more to “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”. But a detailed account of the plot would require a long essay and I am not in the mood. I have noticed that the 1997 miniseries has acquired a reputation for not only being a first-rate television production, but also being superior to the 1963 Oscar winning film. As a five-part miniseries, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” was able to adhere more closely to Fielding’s novel than the movie. But does this mean I believe that the miniseries is better than the movie? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if I can agree with that opinion.

I cannot deny that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a well made television production. Director Metin Hüseyin did an excellent job of utilizing a first-rate production crew for the miniseries. Cinders Forshaw’s photography was well done – especially in Somerset sequences featured in the miniseries’ first half. Roger Cann’s production designs captured mid-18th century England in great detail. And Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes designs were not only exquisite, but nearly looked like exact replicas of the fashions of the 1740s. The look and style of “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” seemed to recapture the chaos and color of mid-18th century England.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could also boast some first-rate performances. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings as Mr. Blifil’s allies, Mr. Square and Reverend Thwackum; Kathy Burke, who was very funny as Sophia’s maid, Honour; Celia Imrie as Tom’s London landlady, Mrs. Miller; Peter Capaldi as the lecherous Lord Fellamar; Tessa Peake-Jones as Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget and Benjamin Whitrow as the squire. The episode also featured solid turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Camille Coduri, Matt Bardock, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Sylvester McCoy. Max Beesley was solid as Tom Jones. He also had good chemistry with his leading lady, Samantha Morton, and did a good job in carrying the miniseries on his shoulders. However, I do feel that he lacked the charisma and magic of Albert Finney. And there were times in the miniseries’ last two episodes, when he seemed in danger of losing steam.

But there were some performances that I found outstanding. Brian Blessed was deliciously lusty and coarse as Squire Western, Allworthy’s neighbor and Sophia’s father. I really enjoyed his scenes with Frances de la Tour, who was marvelous as Sophia’s snobbish and controlling Aunt Western. Lindsay Duncan gave a subtle performance as the seductive Lady Bellaston. James D’Arcy was outstanding as Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the sniveling and manipulative Mr. Blifil. Ron Cook gave the funniest performance in the miniseries, as Tom’s loyal sidekick, Benjamin Partridge, who had earlier suffered a series of misfortunes over the young man’s birth. Samantha Morton gave a superb performance as Tom’s true love, Sophia Western. Morton seemed every inch the graceful and passionate Sophia, and at the same time, conveyed the strong similarities between the young woman and her volatile father. But the one performance I truly enjoyed was John Sessions’ portrayal of author Henry Fielding. I thought it was very clever to use Sessions in that manner as the miniseries’ narrator. And he was very entertaining.

The producers of the miniseries hired Simon Burke to adapt the novel for television. And I believe he did an excellent job. I cannot deny that the miniseries’ running time allowed him to include scenes from the novel. Thanks to Burke’s script and Hüseyin’s direction, audiences were given more details on the accusations against Jenny Jones and Benjamin Partridge for conceiving Tom. Audiences also experienced Bridget Jones’ relationship with her cold husband and the circumstances that led to the conception of Mr. Blifil. Judging from the style and pacing of the miniseries, it seems that Hüseyin was inspired by Tony Richardson’s direction of the 1963 film. There were plenty of raunchy humor and nudity to keep a viewer occupied. More importantly, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” proved to be a fascinating comic epicand commentary on class distinctions, gender inequality and social issues.

However, I still cannot agree with the prevailing view that the miniseries is better than the 1963 movie. Mind you, the latter is not perfect. But the miniseries lacked a cinematic style that gave the movie a certain kind of magic for me. And due to Hüseyin and Burke’s insistence on being as faithful to the novel as possible, the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag in certain scenes. The scenes featuring Tom and Partridge’s encounter with an ineffectual highwayman, their viewing of a puppet show, and a good deal from the London sequences were examples of the miniseries’ slow pacing. I could not help feeling that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could have easily been reduced to four episodes and still remain effective.

I also had a few problems with other matters. One, I never understood why Lady Bellaston continued her campaign to get Sophia married to Lord Fellamar, after Squire Western prevented the peer from raping his daughter. Why did she continued to make life miserable for Tom after receiving his marriage proposal . . . the same proposal that she rejected with contempt? And what led Sophia to finally forgive Tom for the incident with Mrs. Waters at Upton and his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston? After he was declared as Squire Allworthy’s new heir, Sophia refused to forgive Tom for his affair with Lady Bellaston. But the next shot featured Tom and Squire Allworthy returning to Somerset . . . and being greeted by Sophia, along with hers and Tom’s children. WHAT HAPPENED? What led Sophia to finally forgive Tom and marry him? Instead of explaining or hinting what happened, Burke’s script ended on that vague and rather disappointing note.

But despite my problems with “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”, I cannot deny that I found it very enjoyable. Director Metin Hüseyin and screenwriter Simon Burke did a first-rate job in bringing Henry Fielding’s comic opus to life. They were ably assisted by an excellent production staff and fine performances from a cast led by Max Beesley and Samantha Morton.